A Discussion With Mark Edward Siddall About Motivation, the Tenuous Balance of Professional and Private Life, and the Traits That Make a Great Scientist

Over the course of his 21 year career as a scientist, Mark Edward Siddall has gone on many adventures, performed many professional roles, and chalked up many prestigious achievements. He earned a BSc in microbiology and immunology before studying for a PhD in parasitology at the University of Toronto. During that time, Mark’s pioneering work […]

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Over the course of his 21 year career as a scientist, Mark Edward Siddall has gone on many adventures, performed many professional roles, and chalked up many prestigious achievements. He earned a BSc in microbiology and immunology before studying for a PhD in parasitology at the University of Toronto. During that time, Mark’s pioneering work on the malaria-like blood parasites found in certain species of fish won him wide-ranging acclaim in the scientific community.

After successfully obtaining his doctorate, Mark embarked on a series of journeys in support of his research. From studying leeches in Madagascar to analyzing bioluminescent fireworms in Bermuda to observing oysters in Chesapeake Bay, he was seemingly always trotting the globe, collecting biological samples and forwarding the cause of scientific inquiry.

When not in the field, Mark worked hard to establish himself professionally. After receiving his first research grants from the National Science Foundation while at the University of Michigan as a Michigan Society Fellow, he found employment as the Curator of Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural history in New York City. There, he assembled multiple award-winning exhibitions, including The Power of Poison, Life at the Limits/Animal Superheroes, Picturing Science, and Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease. He also received the Henry Baldwin Ward Medal from the American Society of Parasitologists, later serving as that body’s president.

A self-described radical ‘STEMinist’, Mark Edward Siddall is most proud of his accomplishments as a mentor. He has served as an advisor and confidante for more than a dozen young scientists throughout his career, each of whom have gone on to establish rich and rewarding careers.

What do you love most about being a scientist?

A smart person once said that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. What I like about being a scientist is that it’s actually very, very easy to move from a room where you’re the smartest person into a room where you’re not. All it takes is the courage to challenge yourself. That’s not something that’s open to everybody. Not everybody wants to challenge themselves. But I think that’s the benefit of having different challenges every day.

What keeps you motivated?

An insatiable curiosity keeps me motivated. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new scripting language, a new challenge in computed tomography, or genomics. I ask questions about science and biological life sciences technology, then I try to troubleshoot in a very creative, curious way and find answers to those questions. It’s taking these answers that I find and applying them to other questions that I have that keeps me going. That’s incredibly motivating. It’s constant problem solving.

How do you motivate others?

I’ve been lucky enough to have more than a dozen postgraduate mentees go on to tenure-track jobs. I used to run an undergraduate program every summer that mentored hundreds of undergraduates. It was always about motivating them and helping them to find their own motivations. That’s what mentorship really is. If someone is only motivated by a mentor, then when they leave the mentorship situation, they’re done. The whole idea is to help them find their own fire, their own motivation, so they can persevere and thrive in their careers afterward.

Typically, the way I motivate my mentees is to show them the passion that I have for the career path I chose and to assure them that everything they do will matter. But nothing they do will define them, and they can always be creative and always be transformative.

Who has been a role model to you and why?

There was an Italian herpetologist named Giovanni Battista Grassi. Upon reading all the things that he did in his career, what really interested me was the number of times he reinvented himself. This idea of constantly being able to reinvent who you are really resonates with me because in my career I have worked on malaria parasites in fish, oyster diseases, leeches, genomics, tuberculosis, and environmental conservation with metagenomics. Now, I’m looking to get into the private sector. Grassi deserved the Nobel Prize for discovering how malaria was transmitted, but the Nobel committee gave it to Ronald Ross instead. Grassi was faced with great adversity. He was ignored. He was denigrated. But he’s the one who was the better scientist, and he’s the one who constantly reinvented himself. I think he was probably happy.

How do you maintain a solid work/life balance?

Maintaining a solid work/life balance is incredibly difficult when you have one of everything. I have a wife and an ex-wife, a son and a daughter, including one from each marriage. My daughter is 17. In September of 2020, when I chose to leave my job at the Museum of Natural History, my daughter was applying to colleges, my son was about to enter kindergarten remotely in the midst of the pandemic, and my wife was trying to finish her graduate degree. I thought to myself, you know what? I’ve had a 20 year career and I haven’t always balanced it well. But I’ve always been mindful of that. This time, I chose to step away from my career in academia having already accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. I chose to make room for others to succeed. Now, my wife has finished her graduate degree, my daughter was admitted to college, and my son has almost completed his first year of school. This is the most dramatic way that I’ve actually found balance; through choosing not to balance both work and family at this moment, but rather understanding that balance is about time and that balance is a long game. It’s not something you have to accomplish every day or week. It’s something you have to be mindful of by embracing a very long-term, lifetime strategy.

What traits do you possess that make you a successful leader?

I am forthright, I am honest, and I am unvarnished. I mean what I say and I say what I mean.

What suggestions do you have for someone starting out as a scientist?

I think the most important thing that I did at the outset of my career was read a wide range of scientific literature and read outside my area of expertise as much as I could. A broad awareness of scholarly literature is essential. But more than that, engaging in the editorial process of scientific literature is something that will make any aspiring scientist an order of magnitude better.

What is your biggest accomplishment?

The number of young scientists I have had the honor of mentoring over the course my 21 year career has easily been my biggest accomplishment. Every one of them is like family, and every one of them is incredibly successful. The majority of them are in tenure-track faculty positions, which is just astounding and really uplifting. I don’t care where they came from or where they’re going. I do care very deeply about their professional development and their personal development. I don’t distinguish between the two in terms of importance.

Outside of work, what defines you as a person?

I know this is not unusual, but like many others, I suffer very deeply from imposter syndrome. I wake up every morning wondering whether I’m going to be found out to be not as smart as others think I am. I struggle with it every day in terms of being a scientist, a parent, a partner, and in terms of what I’m going to do next in my career. It’s the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is when somebody is so oblivious that they really think that they’re smarter than everybody else, and they try to speak with authority on subjects they know nothing about.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I see myself in a role in science, be it in data science, epidemiology, or environmental biology. Somewhere I can leverage my background, my skills, and my breadth of knowledge and experience in a way that has a more direct impact on society than academia has ever permitted.

Over the course of his 21 year career as a scientist, Mark Edward Siddall has gone on many adventures, performed many professional roles, and chalked up many prestigious achievements. He earned a BSc in microbiology and immunology before studying for a PhD in parasitology at the University of Toronto. During that time, Mark’s pioneering work on the malaria-like blood parasites found in certain species of fish won him wide-ranging acclaim in the scientific community.

After successfully obtaining his doctorate, Mark embarked on a series of journeys in support of his research. From studying leeches in Madagascar to analyzing bioluminescent fireworms in Bermuda to observing oysters in Chesapeake Bay, he was seemingly always trotting the globe, collecting biological samples and forwarding the cause of scientific inquiry.

When not in the field, Mark worked hard to establish himself professionally. After receiving his first research grants from the National Science Foundation while at the University of Michigan as a Michigan Society Fellow, he found employment as the Curator of Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural history in New York City. There, he assembled multiple award-winning exhibitions, including The Power of Poison, Life at the Limits/Animal Superheroes, Picturing Science, and Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease. He also received the Henry Baldwin Ward Medal from the American Society of Parasitologists, later serving as that body’s president.

A self-described radical ‘STEMinist’, Mark Edward Siddall is most proud of his accomplishments as a mentor. He has served as an advisor and confidante for more than a dozen young scientists throughout his career, each of whom have gone on to establish rich and rewarding careers.

What do you love most about being a scientist?

A smart person once said that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. What I like about being a scientist is that it’s actually very, very easy to move from a room where you’re the smartest person into a room where you’re not. All it takes is the courage to challenge yourself. That’s not something that’s open to everybody. Not everybody wants to challenge themselves. But I think that’s the benefit of having different challenges every day.

What keeps you motivated?

An insatiable curiosity keeps me motivated. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new scripting language, a new challenge in computed tomography, or genomics. I ask questions about science and biological life sciences technology, then I try to troubleshoot in a very creative, curious way and find answers to those questions. It’s taking these answers that I find and applying them to other questions that I have that keeps me going. That’s incredibly motivating. It’s constant problem solving.

How do you motivate others?

I’ve been lucky enough to have more than a dozen postgraduate mentees go on to tenure-track jobs. I used to run an undergraduate program every summer that mentored hundreds of undergraduates. It was always about motivating them and helping them to find their own motivations. That’s what mentorship really is. If someone is only motivated by a mentor, then when they leave the mentorship situation, they’re done. The whole idea is to help them find their own fire, their own motivation, so they can persevere and thrive in their careers afterward.

Typically, the way I motivate my mentees is to show them the passion that I have for the career path I chose and to assure them that everything they do will matter. But nothing they do will define them, and they can always be creative and always be transformative.

Who has been a role model to you and why?

There was an Italian herpetologist named Giovanni Battista Grassi. Upon reading all the things that he did in his career, what really interested me was the number of times he reinvented himself. This idea of constantly being able to reinvent who you are really resonates with me because in my career I have worked on malaria parasites in fish, oyster diseases, leeches, genomics, tuberculosis, and environmental conservation with metagenomics. Now, I’m looking to get into the private sector. Grassi deserved the Nobel Prize for discovering how malaria was transmitted, but the Nobel committee gave it to Ronald Ross instead. Grassi was faced with great adversity. He was ignored. He was denigrated. But he’s the one who was the better scientist, and he’s the one who constantly reinvented himself. I think he was probably happy.

How do you maintain a solid work/life balance?

Maintaining a solid work/life balance is incredibly difficult when you have one of everything. I have a wife and an ex-wife, a son and a daughter, including one from each marriage. My daughter is 17. In September of 2020, when I chose to leave my job at the Museum of Natural History, my daughter was applying to colleges, my son was about to enter kindergarten remotely in the midst of the pandemic, and my wife was trying to finish her graduate degree. I thought to myself, you know what? I’ve had a 20 year career and I haven’t always balanced it well. But I’ve always been mindful of that. This time, I chose to step away from my career in academia having already accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. I chose to make room for others to succeed. Now, my wife has finished her graduate degree, my daughter was admitted to college, and my son has almost completed his first year of school. This is the most dramatic way that I’ve actually found balance; through choosing not to balance both work and family at this moment, but rather understanding that balance is about time and that balance is a long game. It’s not something you have to accomplish every day or week. It’s something you have to be mindful of by embracing a very long-term, lifetime strategy.

What traits do you possess that make you a successful leader?

I am forthright, I am honest, and I am unvarnished. I mean what I say and I say what I mean.

What suggestions do you have for someone starting out as a scientist?

I think the most important thing that I did at the outset of my career was read a wide range of scientific literature and read outside my area of expertise as much as I could. A broad awareness of scholarly literature is essential. But more than that, engaging in the editorial process of scientific literature is something that will make any aspiring scientist an order of magnitude better.

What is your biggest accomplishment?

The number of young scientists I have had the honor of mentoring over the course my 21 year career has easily been my biggest accomplishment. Every one of them is like family, and every one of them is incredibly successful. The majority of them are in tenure-track faculty positions, which is just astounding and really uplifting. I don’t care where they came from or where they’re going. I do care very deeply about their professional development and their personal development. I don’t distinguish between the two in terms of importance.

Outside of work, what defines you as a person?

I know this is not unusual, but like many others, I suffer very deeply from imposter syndrome. I wake up every morning wondering whether I’m going to be found out to be not as smart as others think I am. I struggle with it every day in terms of being a scientist, a parent, a partner, and in terms of what I’m going to do next in my career. It’s the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is when somebody is so oblivious that they really think that they’re smarter than everybody else, and they try to speak with authority on subjects they know nothing about.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I see myself in a role in science, be it in data science, epidemiology, or environmental biology. Somewhere I can leverage my background, my skills, and my breadth of knowledge and experience in a way that has a more direct impact on society than academia has ever permitted.

I see myself in a role in science, be it in data science, epidemiology, or environmental biology. Somewhere I can leverage my background, my skills, and my breadth of knowledge and experience in a way that has a more direct impact on society than academia has ever permitted.

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